Mein Solardach

A proposal for large solar panel leasing scheme in Spain funded by puritanical Germans.

Was it Matthew asking for ideas to get Europe’s economy moving?

It was a great insight of Keynes that spending doesn’t have to be useful to be effective in a slump (though he also said that useful was preferable). Helicopter drops of cash, banknotes buried in coal mines, and cheques mailed out randomly would work just fine, but clash with the Protestant ethic. Few Germans believe Keynes’ argument, and no German central bankers, so you really have to come up with Useful and Virtuous ideas.

At the risk of sounding like a one-subject crank, here’s mine. A part of my roof as it could be by Christmas:

What I suggest is a very large solar panel leasing scheme, funded or underwritten by the creditworthy members of the EU, meaning Germany. Taking a number out of a hat, 5 GW at €2.5 per installed watt would cost €12.5bn up front. That’s 2 million houses at 2.5 kw each, or €6,250; or 50,000 industrial roofs at 100kw, or any linear combination. Continue reading “Mein Solardach”

PV-rex hatches

Implications of the imminent arrival of grid parity from solar PV.

Will campaigning deliver the transition to carbon neutrality? Or the governments that still can’t agree to a replacement treaty to Kyoto? Or a change of heart by energy-using corporations like WalMart? Or some miracle new technology like fusion? Hum.

We don’ t deserve this, but there’s now a partial answer. We now have definite predictions from the PV solar industry that grid parity will be reached within the next 5 years.

  • Mark M. Little, the global research director for GE :15c a kw/hr in 3-5 years.
  • Rob Gillette, the CEO of First Solar: 10-12c per kw/hr in California in 2014.
  • Thomas Dinwoodie, founder of SunPower Corp.: solar already competitive with gas and coal.
  • More on the same lines from McKinsey.
PV-rex hatching

According to MM Breyer and Gerlach, engineers for German company Q-cells, a grid parity wave will wash over much of the world by 2017. Pdf paper, apparently dated 2010. Breyer & Gerlach offer a systematic and properly sourced inside view, so I’ll mainly use that. Their work deserves a wider audience and scrutiny. A summary of their grid-parity predictions for the next 5 years at the end. They claim that residential PV is already competitive in Brazil, so we should see lots of panels falling off the backs of lorries on to favela rooftops in Rio very soon. [Update: their model is based on German costs as a benchmark for everybody else, an important qualification; see comments.]

Should we trust these insiders, or discount their claims for boosterism?

Continue reading “PV-rex hatches”


Joachim Gauck and Ksenia Sobchak.

Joachim Gauck has been elected President of Germany. Very much against Angela Merkel’s wishes, but the two previous Presidents, unremarkable warhorses from her own CDU party, both resigned in disgrace [update: but see comments for a distinction between them] and Gauck became inevitable. He’s the dream candidate to everybody who isn’t Chancellor and wants an invisible head of state rather than a possibly inconvenient person of independent character and stature. The office is ceremonial but can have moral weight.

Gauck is a former leader of the opposition to East German Communism and later ran, impeccably, the office responsible for the Stasi files. Timothy Garton Ash wrote a fascinating account of obtaining and reading a copy of his own slim Stasi file, created when he was an exchange student. Serious players like Gauck had files of thousands of pages. We can be sure that if Gauck had any real weaknesses, the most efficient and comprehensive secret police force in history would have found them. Psychological portrait here.

He’s already adroitly moved to disarm excessive expectations. Der Spiegel:

At a news conference on Sunday evening [video in German], he already asked to be forgiven for making mistakes when he’s finding his feet as president. After all, he said, he couldn’t be expected to be “a Superman or a flawless person.”

Gauck is as good a man as Germany could reasonably hope to find. Excellent news.

The same day’s paper carried reports of a more unlikely as well as prettier (footnote) heroine, Ksenia Sobchak.

She’s a celebrity of the Paris Hilton type: spoilt child of the new nomenklatura, Playboy cover-girl, hostess of a trashy reality TV show, protagonist of endless sex-and-partying stories. A Google image search gives you the idea.

She is also the intelligent daughter of a flawed hero of Russia’s flawed democratic revolution, Anatoly Sobchak: mayor of Leningrad (which he restored to St. Petersburg), stand-up guy against the 1991 putsch – and patron of Vladimir Putin, rumoured to be her godfather. Even six years ago, she was dabbling in politics. Now it’s got serious. She’s become a leader of the protests against Putin. She wasn’t in fact well received by the demonstrators: she’s not courting fame, rather using it. The move has led to a break with her mother. On a talk show, Sobchak said (my italics):

Kinship is a very strong tie, a strong material, But the ideas in my head are also of very strong material, so I have no choice.

Her stand does not compare with the decades-long struggles of Joachim Gauck and Aung San Suu Kyi. Her offer of leadership may still be rejected by the protest movement because of her past – a bad move IMHO, they badly need her national name recognition, not to mention looks. On my reading of modern Russia, such a rejection would be out of distaste for her nouveau riche flaunting of ill-gotten wealth rather than her interesting sex life, which worries Russians about as much as it would Italians or Brazilians. Alternatively she may be nobbled by her godfather’s ruthless minions: stand by for the tax evasion charges. Or she may just not have the stomach for the years in the wilderness facing the Russian opposition, or the graft needed to develop workable and saleable alternative policies.

Still, she’s come a long way already. Stranger things have happened in politics than the conversion of a playboy to a saint or steely politician. Slippery slopes go both ways: the feedback loops which reinforce acquiescence and venality, or lonely courage and resistance. Ms Sobchak has already taken the first steps down a path which may lead her to power or to martyrdom.

Best of luck to the old man and the young woman.

I know, I know. But her looks are a crucial part of her story: both her past and her possible futures.
Update Follow-up post.

Bandit cable

Thre cable TV service run by crimunals in Rio´s favelas was much cheaper than its legal successors.

Last month the Rio police, supported by marines in armoured cars and a cloud of TV cameras, stormed the Rocinha favela, unopposed by the drug traffickers. Behind the media theatre, the policy of reoccupation seems to be working. Police stations are followed by social services. Tourists and banks are venturing in. Shopkeepers don´t have to pay protection any more. The favela dwellers are delighted to be freed from the rule of mobsters, right?

Up to a point, Lord Copper. They now have to pay for their electricity instead of stealing it from the street lighting cables. Tough. They also – and here I have much more sympathy – have to pay a lot more for TV. As air reception is very poor on the steep hillsides, TV was supplied over an illegal cable network, the gatonet, controlled of course by the drug gangs. The going rate was 15-30 reais a month for up to 120 channels, including the free-to-air ones that carry telenovelas and football, and hacked paying film channels. I´m quite impressed by the bandits´ technical achievement here.

A gatonet office in Bangu favela

are now being offered the service by legal providers for twice the price: 40 to 80 reais. The minimum wage in Brazil is 543 reais a month, and many favelistas will be living off less. 10% of their income just for TV!

The gatonet was provided by murderous outlaw kleptocrats, but their legal Brazilian counterparts are in this area even worse for the poor. My (non-poor) daughter in Lille pays 30 euros a month (72 reais) for 20-megabit ADSL (the slow offer!), 100 free TV channels and many others at a reasonable a la carte charge, and unlimited phone calls in France.

It´s not I think an accident that there are no low-power repeaters on Rio´s many hills to provide decent air TV reception, or that the municipality has not simply taken over the seizedgatonet and run it as a very profitable public service. There are TV satellites over Brazil, but owned by Globo and Sky (from which we buy a poor-value package). The selection of free-to-air channels is very thin. In Europe the TV satellites are owned by Astra, a Luxembourg corporation independent of the TV networks it carries, including Sky´s encrypted ones and FTA ones from the BBC, ITV, and Germany. There must be a profit opportunity in Rocinha for pirate satellite TV using hacked second-hand Sky receivers.

Brazil has the typical second-world problem of governance. It seems to lack a professional higher civil service; ministers are free to staff their fiefs with party cronies, which helps explain the high level of corruption and the serial scandals in Brasilia. In state capitals, it doesn´t even become a scandal. A technocracy can be a force for competition if it´s given a mandate. The European Commission is unideologically power-hungry, so it´s super-statist in agriculture (inheriting French policy) and strongly pro-competition in electricity and telecoms (inheriting German policy).

Lacking technocrats, it would still be possible for Brazil´s vigorous democracy to provide checks on monopolists. But the Brazilian left is typically soggy on competition. Partly it´s ideology; if you demonise all capitalists, you lose the ability to discriminate between useful and exploitative ones, and this continues when you make your peace with them. Partly it´s the organisational base: for the PT, the unions, representing a labour elite, many working for public and parastatal organisations. Monopolists can offer safe jobs with good wages. (A necessary but not a sufficient condition; see Amazon´s sweatshop warehouses.)

It´s possible for a right-wing party to be pro-competition, if it has a liberal ideology (in the European free-market sense) and a base representing small business, like Thatcher´s Conservatives or the German Free Democrats. If the losing conservative candidate in the last Brazilian general election, Jose Serra, had such a vision, he certainly didn´t articulate it.

Which brings me to the Republicans, another party of businessmen. GOP policies clearly only reflect the interests of big monopolistic corporations, not small ones. On credit card fees, the GOP backs the extortionate fees of the Visa and Mastercard duopoly (>2% per sale against 0.5% in Europe) against the interests of retailers, garage owners and Joe the Plumber. It opposed public works in a recession, a lifeline to small construction companies; and Obama´s moves towards universal health care, an obvious interest of every American employer. How many minutes a week does a Danish employer spend worrying about the health insurance of her employees, and how many staff does she pay to handle it? Zero.

Thomas Frank, in his famous What´s the matter with Kansas?, noted the ¨false consciousness¨ of Republican American workers who vote their cultural biases against their material interests. Does not the same apply to Republican small businessmen?

A nail in a lead coffin

Nuclear power is doomed by its negative learning curve.

A damning chart by Arnulf Grubler of IIASA in Austria, via Joe Romm:

Figure 13: Average and min/max reactor construction costs per year of completion date for US and France versus cumulative capacity completed

Remember that the French nuclear programme had the most favourable institutional and political environment imaginable Рa centralised polity, a stable political consensus administered by a technically-trained ̩lite, a single capable purchaser insisting on maximum standardisation Рand costs still went up.

Why the negative learning curve? Continue reading “A nail in a lead coffin”

The Conspiracy of the Cells of Fire

Bumbling Greek terrorists and American electors

A pair of amateur Greek terrorists were arrested on Monday after mailing a round of small, primitive and easily detected letter bombs. The only professional touch to their groupuscule was the terrific name (above). The bad-taste video game is no doubt in the works, but I doubt if the inventors can claim the rights from prison.

Messrs. Tsakalos and Argyrou are understandably upset about the brutal austerity programme imposed by the EU and the bond market as a condition for bailing out Greece (or more accurately, Greece´s bondholders). So they, less understandably, mailed bombs to:

  • Angela Merkel
  • Nicolas Sarkozy
  • ¨the embassies of Bulgaria, Russia, Germany, Switzerland, Mexico, Chile, the Netherlands and Belgium.¨

Merkel was the bad cop on the Greek bailout, so you can follow the thinking. Sarkozy played good cop, but with his usual shallow opportunism, and joined Merkel in the end. Belgium supports everything the EU does and Zurich banks are, as is well known, staffed by evil gnomes. But what have Bulgaria, Mexico and Chile done recently to the hapless Greeks?

The mailboxes of the following appear to have been left undisturbed:

  • the previous Greek Prime Minister, Finance Minister, head of the Central Bank, and head of the tax collection service,
  • the national statistical office of Greece, who cooked the books to order, and Eurostat, who failed to notice for years;
  • the ECB and the inventors of the Euro and Stability Pact;
  • Moody´s, S &P, and Fitch – the corrupt and/or incompetent rating agencies;
  • Goldman Sachs and other investment banks who advised Greece on how to game the system.

In other words, the poor saps had no idea who was really responsible for the mess their country is in and just lashed out blindly at friends, foes and innocent bystanders.

Just like American electors.

Health care reform politics and Kristallnacht 2010

There was a joke that used to go around about a golf game involving entertainer Sammy Davis, Jr.  Another player asked his handicap, and Davis replied “I’m a Jewish black man with one eye; how much more handicap do I need?”
This came to mind when I read the New York Times story about President Obama’s White House Seder.  It was surprisingly moving for a non-observant Jew to learn of the President’s observance of one of our rituals.  But as a Jew, I’m also slightly–and less surprisingly–alarmed on the President’s behalf.  People already accuse him of being a Muslim non-citizen; how much more handicap does he need?

It’s illuminating, though, to consider the President an honorary or metaphorical Jew, because it highlights the parallels between the hysteria attaching to Obama’s presidency and the hysteria recurrently directed at Jews.  What’s the difference between Sarah Palin’s claim that the President will operate death panels to kill her disabled child, and the classic blood libel that Jews kill Christian babies and use their blood to make matzoh?  Only the most ignorant and fearful among us could possibly believe such nonsense, and yet time and again scapegoating has worked because people have believed it and sought to eliminate imaginary threats by killing real people.

And now the President’s opponents have adopted another tactic from the anti-Semites’ playbook.  There’s already been way too much talk about Nazis in the course of debating the Affordable Care Act. But when a political group’s response to legislation comes in the form of coordinated window-smashing, only the willfully forgetful can fail to think “Kristallnacht.”

That’s the night the Nazis expressed their disappointment at a political setback by going on a simultaneous rampage all over Germany: killing Jews, beating them, setting fire to their homes and, most memorably, breaking 7500 windows of Jewish-owned shops.  The current incidents of vandalism against the offices of Congresspeople who voted for the Affordable Care Act aren’t remotely comparable in scale to that night in 1938, but they’re precisely comparable in purpose.   And the sound of breaking glass is the last thing you hear before reasoned political debate is drowned out entirely, and with it genuine self-government.

House Republican Whip Eric Cantor is apparently among the willfully forgetful.  His response to the outbreak of violence among those who share his political positions was to claim that he, too, had been the target of political violence and–more important–to blame the Democrats for making public what had occurred. In other words, he claimed victimization while blaming the actual victims.

Consider, if you would, the Wikipedia account of Kristallnacht’s aftermath:

More than 30,000 Jewish men were arrested and taken to concentration camps . . . . After this, the Jewish community was fined 1 billion reichsmarks.

In other words, the Nazis claimed victimization while blaming the actual victims.

Let me be clear: I don’t think the people who broke campaign-office windows are actual Nazis, or that their doing so had anything to do with anti-Semitism or Jews.  The fact that Kristallnacht was organized and the latest nonsense mostly not is a big difference, as is the fact that Kristallnacht had official sanction while the window-breaking doesn’t. Everything that happens isn’t about Nazis or Jews.

Being Jewish nonetheless provides a useful set of historical sense memories, and the sound of glass splintering on sidewalks is one of them.

In the early 1930s, plenty of people on the respectable German right disdained the low-class National Socialists.  They were a tool, that’s all, useful temporarily for cowing and marginalizing liberalism so the respectable right could regain political power.  By the time the respectable German right figured out that the Nazi tiger couldn’t be ridden, the whole country was already inside.

So who on the respectable American right will be the first to condemn wholeheartedly our current eruption of far-right thuggery? Apparently it won’t be John Boehner, who undercut his own criticism of the attacks by describing them as the natural result of insupportable Democratic provocation.   It won’t be Sarah Palin, who like her anti-choice allies routinely identifies opponents as “enemies” and “targets,” and like them will doubtless pretend to be surprised when someone gets murdered.   And it won’t be Eric Cantor, though as the highest-ranking Jew in the Republican caucus he might be expected to remember history and hope not to repeat it.

So is there anyone left in the Republican Party to speak out, or are they all too busy hoping the Tea Partiers don’t come for them?

Stay tuned.

A Prussian Memo to Blue Dogs

¨Dogs, would you liv efor ever?¨

Frederick the Great, to retreating Prussian soldiers at the battle of Kolin in 1757:

Kerls, wollt ihr ewig leben?

(Dogs, would you live for ever?)
I fear the answer is ¨yes.¨ But then, why go into politics at all if you are frightened of dangerous achievements?
Note to language police: I know the dog metaphor is not in the original, but it is the traditional translation.

Round trip

The first commercial kitesail cargo ship completes its maiden round voyage.

On Mark’s cue, a cargo ship called the MV Beluga Skysails yesterday completed a 12,000 mile round trip from Bremen (Germany) to Guanta (Venezuela) to Davant (USA Gulf Coast) to a port genuinely called Mo-i-Rana in Norway. Its safe return marks a small Columbus moment for the revival of sail, in the appealing form of giant hi-tech kites.

So (oof) I don’t have to take back my enthusiastic post a of a month ago when the ship set off. The gadget worked, in February in the North Atlantic. It didn’t blow away. It saved quite a lot of fuel. The shipowners want to try bigger ones. This looks a winning technology, and good news for the climate.

My worry is that the inventors, being German and small, will proceed with the caution that seamen like, and won’t drive costs down as fast as Henry Kaiser would have done. But they deserve congratulations anyway.

Alles klar Frau Kommissar?

Angela Merkel thinks Georgia shouldn’t be in NATO. Well, isn’t that special?

Angela Merkel doesn’t want Georgia in NATO:

“A country should become a NATO member not only when its temporary political leadership is in favour but when a significant percentage of the population supports membership,” Merkel said in Berlin in reference to Ukraine and Georgia.

Problem is, opinion polls in Georgia regularly show around 85-percent support for NATO, and the recent plebiscite (coupled with an only 52-percent vote for the president) got 77-percent approval. The only political party that opposes NATO membership is somewhere outside the orbit of the American Independent Party. Merkel 0, reality 1.

“Countries that are themselves entangled in regional conflicts, can in my opinion not become members,” she added after talks with NATO Secretary General Jaap de Hoop Scheffer.

So, France, Italy, the UK, Greece, Turkey, and Spain shouldn’t have become NATO members. In Merkel’s opinion. Too bad that NATO says only that applicants be engaged in good-faith conflict-resolution efforts:

[Chapter 1, “Purposes and principles of enlargement”] States which have ethnic disputes or external territorial disputes, including irredentist claims, or internal jurisdictional disputes must settle those disputes by peaceful means in accordance with OSCE principles. Resolution of such disputes would be a factor in determining whether to invite a state to join the Alliance (para. 6).

[Chapter 5, “What prospective new members will need to do politically to prepare themselves for membership”] Prospective members will have to have demonstrated a commitment to and respect for OSCE norms and principles, including the resolution of ethnic disputes, external territorial disputes including irredentist claims or internal jurisdictional disputes by peaceful means, as referred to also in paragraph 6 of Chapter 1 (para. 72).

Well, that would have disqualified France.